Arriving in Panama we have a feeling that we have actually re-entered the U.S. as we roll down a four-lane divided highway with police speed traps everywhere. Our first couple of nights are spent in the city of David, the country’s second-largest city and half-way between San Jose (the capital of Costa Rica) and Panama City(the capital of Panama).
As we begin to head further into Panama, we recognize that this thin squiggle of land offers a surprisingly diverse selection of landscapes and a melting pot of cultures.
We arrive in Panama City on the Pan-American Highway, first crossing the famed Panama Canal on the Bridge of the Americas before arriving in the Balboa district of the city. Panama is a centralized nation, with about a third of its population of three million living in Panama City. As we look over the canal toward a sea of skyscrapers, it is obvious that Panama City is reinventing itself as something more than home to a canal.
Our destination in the city is Panama Passage, a guest house specifically for overland travelers. Staying here is a great decision. It is a nice change to be surrounded by like-minded people who don’t think we are completely insane. Our fellow guests included travelers from the U.S., Britain,the Netherlands, Germany, and Ecuador. We were part of a great mix of individuals traveling on their own, as a couple, with friends, by 4×4, and on motorbike.
On our first evening, we head out with the other guests of Panama Passage to the Amador Causeway at the Pacific entrance to the Panama Canal. The causeway is a 2 km palm-tree-lined stretch of land connecting four small islands to the mainland. Once the haunt of pirates, the islands were connected in the early 1900s with rock and dirt excavated from the Culebra Cut in the Panama Canal to form a breakwater for a protective harbour for ships waiting to enter the canal. Along the causeway, we enjoyed views across the water to the city’s glittering skyline.
Panama Passage is situated in a great location allowing us to walk to the Mercado Público, the covered farmer’s market of Panama City, where we purchase fruits, vegetables, and most of the makings of our meals for a few days. We create a connection with four fellow travelers to share dinner-making duties over four days which allows us to have some fun in the kitchen and also enjoy the great cooking of some of our fellow travelers.
One morning we head off with Mirjam and Daan (www.farawayfromflakkee.nl) to Parque Natural Metropolitano, the only protected tropical forest within the city limits of a major urban area in the Americas. This 265 hectare park is located on the northern edge of Panama City and partially overseen by the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute which carries out scientific studies here. This land is the protected home of more than 200 species of birds, mammals, and reptiles. We quickly delve into the earthy environs of thick jungle, enjoying the quiet and dappled sunlight. Almost immediately, we spot a group of tamarins (pint-sized primates) making their way across our path. We see plenty of birds, duck out of the path of the occasional butterfly, and spend time watching the mesmerizing army ants trekking across the trail. Eventually our trail heads up Cedro Hill to a 150m lookout point with sweeping views of the city, the bay, and the canal.
Later the same day I join Helen and Paul (www.goingoverland.com ) on a visit to Panama’s star attraction, the Panama Canal. We visit the Miraflores Locks, watching a couple of ships pass through the locks and touring the fabulous visitor centre which provided a wealth of information about the canal’s history and its impact on world trade as well as information on how the region’s natural environment is crucial to the function of the canal.
A few nights into our stay at Panama Passage we are joined by fellow Calgarians, Sandra and Jordan (www.hasselmann.wordpress.com ) whom we met at home earlier in the year. We had been hoping to meet up with them on the road and although they had left Calgary a few months before us, they had enjoyed a longer tour of Canada, the U.S., and Mexico and then faced some weather challenges in Central America getting them into Panama City just a few days behind us. It is great to see some familiar faces.
On our final day in Panama City, we join Helen and Paul to visit Casco Viejo, the city centre during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Over the last century, as population growth and urban expansion pushed the urban boundaries further east, the city’s elite abandoned Casco Viejo for other parts of the city and the antique mansions were left to rot. The neighborhood rapidly deteriorated into somewhat of an urban slum with low-income families and squatters moving in. Regardless, it is a charming neighborhood with narrow streets, turn-of-the 19th-ceutury Spanish, Italian, and French-influenced architecture, bougainvillea-filled plazas, and a breezy promenade jutting into the sea. There is now a public and privately-funded project underway to restore the areas buildings and the neighborhood’s historical importance.
Stay tuned for more fromPanama…